The Coram Innovation Incubator (CII) is determined to support the children’s social care sector to identify and implement the solutions which can make a tangible difference to the lives of children and young people. With rapid advancements in technological capabilities over recent years, digital innovation offers a unique opportunity to enhance children’s services. However, knowing what is possible and how we can embed it in practice can be a challenge.
In February, the CII hosted a webinar for leaders in children’s services to help them to envisage the Art of the Possible in the technological arena and think practically about how they can capitalise on its potential. Expert colleagues from Microsoft, EY and Xantura joined a panel of senior figures from children’s services to explore how technology has and could have a transformative impact on our sector.
This webinar focused on how emerging technology can help practitioners manage data safely and securely and use existing information about children, young people and families to help support them in a targeted and bespoke way. We heard about two tools at the cutting-edge of data analytics and the impact they could have on the operation of children’s services and familial outcomes: EY and Xantura’s One View platform and Microsoft’s Knowledge Mining Tool.
EY and Xantura have developed the One View platform, a predictive analytics tool which seeks to enable teams on the frontline to provide more proactive support to the families across their populations. One View demonstrates the art of the possible beyond standardised analytics; it compiles and connects real-time information using data from across council services (e.g. adults and children’s social care, housing and revenues) to provide a single view of the family presented in an accessible and intuitive format. This gives practitioners a rounded picture of the challenges a family is facing allowing them to provide timely and bespoke support and avoid escalation to a crisis point. This in turn can help improve outcomes and minimise costs for the council. The One View model has been successfully trialled in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham as part of an incentive to create a new front door for residents experiencing covid-related risks, those vulnerable to homelessness and as part of the supporting families programme.
The potential for such a tool to be applied in a children’s services context is vast: for children today, there are a number of complex factors which can impinge on their lives and risks can emerge in a number of settings, be it the home, school or financial arena – a theme which has come into sharp focus during covid times. Having immediate access to details of historical and new challenges facing families can help children’s services practitioners better manage related risks and intervene in a timely manner to avoid a worse outcome for the child.
Knowledge Mining Tool
With caseloads increasing, it is difficult for a single practitioner to assimilate the details contained within a child’s case notes, follow the interactions with the various stakeholders in their lives and fully understand their life story. During the webinar, we heard about Microsoft’s Knowledge Mining tool, which has great potential to enhance the ability of children’s services to manage cases and appropriately safeguard the children in their care. Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), or ‘assistive technology’, the tool is able to automatically process and distill vast amounts of data- both structured and unstructured- and highlight specific patterns, trends and insights. In children’s services, this technology could be a vital resource, making key up-to-date information easily available to assist practitioners with decision making and case prioritisation. For example, the tool could be applied and instructed to create a genogram illustrating a child’s network, which may be consulted to assess possible kinship care for a child who becomes looked after. It could be another important addition to the early help toolbox, supporting practitioners stretched for time and resource to make informed decisions.
Reflections of our expert panel
Our panel of sector leaders* were clear on the potential value of using such tools to enhance the value of the data we hold about children and to help practitioners manage safeguarding risks. However, with data sharing so integral to the operation of these tools, we discussed the concurrent need to ensure we adopt best practice when it comes to sharing information.
The panel highlighted a number of key elements to consider as we attempt to realise the technological art of the possible:
- The potential for services to prevent the most tragic consequences for children – By enabling services to better manage risk and readily identify critical information across a child’s life, such tools were seen as a means of mitigating cases of serious harm and helping to avoid the most devastating outcomes for children. This was set against a context where issues around appropriately utilising and sharing vital data have been a crucial and enduring feature present in serious case reviews. We were implored to be proactive in this context and act quickly to embed such tools into everyday social work, rather than waiting for a tragic incident to necessitate action.
- The need to develop better collaborative relationships – In order for this technology to be successfully applied, we need a commitment across organisations to pursue better collaborative relationships, moving away from silo working. Fostering positive child-centred relationships across agencies, based upon trust and mutual understanding, will facilitate more effective data sharing. It will also mean that multi-agency professionals are better able to implement a plan of action for the child and family on the basis of the data available.
- Acknowledge and build upon positive examples of information sharing – As we seek solutions to a sector wide need for effective multi-agency data sharing, it is clear we must harness examples of successful collaborations of this kind and apply the same formula. One positive example is the Social Workers in Schools Project, which involved an effective partnership between education and social care services.
- The need to deepen our understanding of data governance protocols – Effective data sharing can be hindered by anxieties around how we can ensure we protect the data of our communities and comply with data governance and GDPR regulations. As we look to alert practitioners to the practical possibilities, we must also engage with stakeholders from multiple agencies- e.g. children’s social care, education, police and healthcare- and educate them in responsible data governance while dispelling any myths and working to undermine perceived barriers. With services across the nation experiencing many of the same challenges around data, developing national guidance on how to swiftly implement data sharing agreements and taking a unified approach can ensure that we can make the most of this technology. With child safeguarding more complex than ever in the wake of the pandemic, this must be a national priority.
- See technology as assisting skilled social work practitioners, not replacing human decision-making – Acknowledging the specialist skill-sets of social work practitioners in making critical decisions and engaging with the complex challenges faced by children and families, we must see these technological tools as assistive. With the demands made on children’s services growing exponentially and resourcing increasingly strained, case management has become more difficult and time consuming for practitioners. These tools can support practitioners in their roles and help them to improve outcomes by making key information available and accessible instantaneously. Ultimately, this will enable practitioners to make quicker and more informed decisions and spend more time engaging directly with children and families.
- Secure buy in beyond children’s services – We were reminded that employing such data analytics technology is a process requiring a number of moving parts. We must seek buy-in and engagement from colleagues working in digital and information governance teams so that we can build the vital foundations for such technology to function in practice. Leadership is critical in terms of facilitating a culture that embraces technological innovation, as well as equipping staff with the necessary training to utilise the technology in practice.
A Cause for Optimism
The opportunities are evident – technology is available to us in a way it has never been before. The collective drive and motivation across children’s services and other partner agencies stand us in good stead to apply this art of the possible. Technology can support and enhance the fantastic work of skilled social work practitioners and help to lessen some of the challenges they are facing. It can play a crucial role as we seek to manage growing demand, coordinate the care of children across agencies and ensure we can engage in effective early intervention. If we can translate the possibility into practice, we can transform the lives of children and young people now and across future generations.
*Our group of sector experts was Chaired by Carol Homden, CEO of Coram. The speakers were: Annie Hudson, Chair of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel and former DCS in Bristol and Lambeth, Peter Tolley, the Director of Children’s Social Care in the London Borough of Harrow and Greg McKay, who is now Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector Lead for Public Health and Social Services, but who was formerly a homicide detective in the USA working in child protection and the director of the Arizona Department of Child Safety.
Sylvie Travers is the CII’s Assistant Project Manager.